Here it is, finally: the first of a long-promised series of posts about my recent volunteer trip to northern Chile. The experience provided such a monumental amount of material for blogging that the only way to tackle it is anecdotally.
For those who may not know, I spent the last week in January and the first week in February in Canela, a rural municipality about four hours north of Santiago. Canela's population, which hovers around 10,000, is divided among numerous rural communities separated by cactus-covered hills and broad expanses of thirsty land. The devastating effects of Chile's current drought were all too visible in Canela, an agricultural zone struggling to stay afloat without water.
My friend Marisa and I arrived in Canela with two audio recorders and what seemed like miles of blank tape. Our mission: to broadcast a series of hour-long radio programs about health, news, cultural events and local issues. Our platform: Radio Horizonte Campesino, a community radio station with a small antenna and a limited number of listeners. Canela's airwaves are dominated by Radio Asunción, a Catholic station that charges more for air time than the Fech (the University of Chile's student federation) could afford. The kind folks at Horizonte Campesino, in contrast, charged nothing and gave us permission to talk about whatever we pleased, contraception included. There was only one condition: no foul language.
Having convinced the station's operators of our pure intentions (and mouths), Marisa and I began our career as radio hosts. Every afternoon, we made the ascent from Canela's main plaza to the small house Horizonte Campesino called home. With the indispensable help of two local DJs who went by the names Geminis and Lengua de Serpiente (Snake Tongue), we set up our microphones, cued up our music playlist and drank lots of generic cola.
Before our first broadcast, I was terrified. Before our last broadcast, I was still terrified, but a little less so. Working at the radio had proven a fun, informative, and confidence-building experience. One of the things I enjoyed most about the program--in addition to dancing reggaeton during song breaks--was interviewing our special guests. Most were University of Chile med students eager to share their knowledge of hypertension, healthy eating and the effects of alcoholism. However, we were also lucky enough to interview a local psychologist about domestic violence and talk to a female Canela resident about her women farmers' collective.
Alas, things couldn't go well forever. Everything was going according to plan the afternoon of the debacle. Marisa and I had completed an interview, and the DJs had put on a song. The chosen melody was "Down," a reggaeton hit that sticks in my head and drives me nuts. Coincidentally, I had recently attended a party whose host had blasted a spin-off of the song. This new, Chilean-made version had changed the original lyrics in order to engage in a bit of constructive criticism about Transantiago, Santiago's problem-plagued public transportation system. Some of the more memorable lyrics include "Transantiago reculiao (fucking Transantiago)" and "el ministro nos cagó (the minister [of transportation] fucked us over)."
As the original "Down" thumped over Canela's airwaves, I started singing along--with the Transantiago lyrics. Needless to say, the directors of Radio Horizonte Campesino would not have approved of the words I was crooning. Good thing my microphone was turned off.
The startled look Marisa shot me from across the table confirmed that, in fact, it wasn't. The DJs leaned out from their booth looking amused. Although I had no way of seeing myself, I'm certain my face became very, very red.
So it was that a gringa cursed out a small town in northern Chile. Luckily for me, the fallout I expected never came. Apparently, everyone had been listening to Radio Asunción.